Producer, remixer, record label founder
Adrian Sherwood, a producer, remixer, and organizer of the British dub collective/record label On-U Sound, has long been regarded as one of the most innovative and influential artists in contemporary dance and modern reggae music. His talent for creating musical space, suspense, sensations, and textures have enabled him to pioneer a distinctive fusion of dub, rock, reggae, and dance that challenged tradition not only in roots circles, but also in the pop world at large. Since its formation in 1979, On-U Sound has released over 100 albums and singles and has launched the careers and/or inspired an endless list of artists. The label’s influence upon a younger generation of musicians such as Tricky, not to mention the ambient/techno style in general, proved enormous, helping to fuse Jamaican dub with both the independent rock and post-punk scenes. Although the label has often suffered because of the mainstream’s tendency to categorize music within specific genres, Sherwood’s name is nonetheless recognized by pop audiences worldwide for his production efforts and remixes for artists including Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, Depeche Mode, and Primal Scream.
The undisputed patriarchal figure of On-U Sound, Sherwood bears a wealth of knowledge which he shares readily with less-experienced musicians, and he extends a warm sincerity and genuine concern for his “family” of artists. “I organize the bands” said Sherwood, as quoted by the On-U Sound website, “and make them up, because a lot of them are studio bands before they become real bands. I produce the records, record the records and mix the records, and then I try and make sure our records are presented in a way that is suitable to me, that feels right with my own sensibilities.”
According to those close to Sherwood, he pursues his art not for the money, but because he enjoys producing music he believes in, regardless of whether mainstream listeners take an interest in the outcome or not. “I don’t really want to compete on that level, “Sherwood said. “I’d rather try and create a niche amongst like minded people, and create our own little market place be that 5, 50 or 500, 000 sales and also be true to our principles of making things, and to your own spirit that you put into the work. I watch all the dance stuff, what’s going on in it, and I think there’s some fantastic grooves, but if you start competing in that for the sake of trying to make a few pounds, I think I’d rather be broke.” As Sherwood further explained: “I’m rich enough already, not in money but I’ve got all these people, a good set of friends and I’ve got a nice house, “adding, “what I’ve got is what I’ve always wanted, I’m just learning to appreciate it a bit.”
Born in 1958 in London, England, Sherwood gravitated toward music at an early age, developing an interest in a uniquely British form of dub that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. A precocious teen, he spent many nights away from the family home in Slough, Buckinghamshire, to learn his trade under the guidance of nostalgic names like Emperor Rosko, Judge Dread, Johnny Walker, and Steve Barnard. Meanwhile, he made contact with the reggae world by working with the Pama and Trojan road shows, spending his summer vacations apprenticing with the legendary Pama and Vulcan record labels. At 17, Sherwood co-founded his first label, the short-lived Carib Gems, and issued some of the first Black Uhuru sides in addition to some early dub work by Prince Far I, who became a regular colleague of Sherwood’s until his tragic death in 1983. During this time, Sherwood also distributed Jamaican dub plates by various other artists and toured for a while with the Clash, for whom he could dub music live at the mixing desk.
With the dissolution of Carib Gems, Sherwood formed Hit Run in 1978, a label that issued a total of 34 12-inch singles, among them classics such as Carol Kalphat’s “African Land” and Prince Far I’s “Higher Field Marshall, “as well as the first Roots Radies dub set “Dub to Africa” and the first installment of the “Crytuff Dub Encounter, “mixed and co-produced by Sherwood, by Prince Far I & the Arabs. By 1980, Hit Run had evolved into On-U Sound, and the outfit released its first album, Creation Rebel—a self-titled product of a reggae-punk act incorporating members of the Slits and the Pop Group, alongside On-U Sound partners “Crucial” Tony Phillips and “Lizard” Logan—that same year. Mixed by Sherwood himself, the record enabled his passion for reggae and inimitable style to shine through.
Born in 1958 in London, England; married Kishi Yamamoto.
Formed Hit Run, 1978; formed On-U Sound label/collective, released Creation Rebel, 1980; released first African Head Charge album, My Life in a Hole in the Ground, 1981; released first Dub Syndicate album, Pounding System, 1982; developed lineups called New Age Steppers, Tackhead, and Mark Stewart & the Maffia, 1980s; worked on tracks for artists as varied as Depeche Mode, Einstürzende Neubaten, Simply Red, the Woodentops, Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire, Skinny Puppy, KMFDM, and Nine Inch Nails.
Addresses: Record company —On-U Sound, P.O. Box 1460, London, England NIO 2DQ, phone: (181) 883-0331, fax: (181) 871-1766.
Over the next few years, Sherwood enlisted a talented array of musicians including “Style” Scott on drums, Doctor Pablo on melodica, “Deadly” Headly on horns, “Eskimo” Fox on drums, and Bim Sherman on vocals, to serve as the core cast of On-U Sound. With this lineup, aided by various guest participants, the outfit released a substantial amount of militant, futuristic punk/dub records—most recorded within a couple of weeks at Sherwood’s home—under the names New Age Steppers, Singers & Players, and as solo artists. Despite time and financial constraints, Sherwood’s outfit quickly established itself as the center of Jamaican-driven electronic music in the United Kingdom. All of these early records, according to Rock: The Rough Guide contributor Richard Fontenay, were “phenomenal—generally bass-heavy with outlandish dubbing from Sherwood, who worked the mixing desk as an instrument in itself.”
With the usual core members and vocalist/percussionist Bonjo lyabinghi, Sherwood created wildly tribal-sounding African Head Charge, which became one of On-U Sound’s most popular projects. In 1981, the group released My Life in a Hole in the Ground, followed in 1982 by Environmental Studies. Scott’s Dub Syndicate also became popular during the collective’s beginnings, and now is perhaps the best-regarded outfit from On-U Sound. Dub Syndicate’s music displayed a more roots-based sound than other names on the label’s roster, and the group recorded with a variety of notable guests, including legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. Over the years, Dub Syndicate released several albums, from Pounding System in 1982 through Ital Breakfast in 1996.
Other new acts developed by Sherwood through the mixing and matching of various line-ups included the New Age Steppers, Tackhead, and Mark Stewart & the Maffia, Sherwood’s first departure into music other than the reggae-based. This project came about when Mark Stewart, former vocalist of the Pop Group, and Kishi Yamamoto, Sherwood’s wife and graphic artist for On-U Sound, talked Sherwood into recruiting the backing group of the noted hip-hop outfit the Sugarhill Gang. Soon thereafter, the trio comprised of programmer Keith LeBlanc, bassist Doug Wimbish, and guitarist Skip McDonald found themselves as part of the collective recording as Tackhead with Gary Clail, Bernard Fowler, and Stewart as the Maffia for such albums as Learning to Cope with Cowardice in 1982 as well as Control Data in 1996. Tackhead, who brought a new power and definition to On-U Sound’s dense, textured recordings, also recorded several albums under their own name.
By the mid 1980s, Sherwood, by now recognized by the recording community for his stellar production work, was among the most visible producers and remixers in all of contemporary music. Throughout the decade, he worked on tracks for artists as varied as Depeche Mode, Einstürzende Neubaten, Simply Red, the Woodentops, and Ministry, becoming increasingly involved in industrial music as the decade came to a close. By this time, Sherwood was producing tracks for Cabaret Voltaire, Skinny Puppy, KMFDM, and Nine Inch Nails.
But while On-U Sound continued to reflect Sherwood’s diverse interests, the label nonetheless remained reggae-focused at heart. In 1994, Sherwood mounted Pressure Sounds, a new label dedicated to reissuing seminal reggae and dub releases from the likes of Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Jackie Mittoo, and Horace Andy. “It’s the best music to me, because it’s got more space than anything else ever created, “he remarked about the dub and reggae styles in an interview with Tim Haslett for the online magazine Catascopic, “and it’s haunting, because in good dub, what you don’t hear is as important as what you do hear…. [F]or years reggae was regarded as 99 cents in a cheap rack in a shop, was regarded as B-grade music, now Jamaican music is thrashing the charts all over the world, and a lot of people are now seeing the power and energy of the Jamaican music… I’m very happy for the Jamaican producers who are doing well and finally getting the respect they deserve.”
Since the mid 1990s, Sherwood has continued to extend his vision, recruiting new groups such as the Revolutionary Dub Warriors, Tribal Drift, Little Axe (featuring McDonald), and others. Still one of the most sought-after producers in the contemporary music industry, Sherwood and his progressive style and interest in developing new ideas are sure to propel On-U Sound’s continued success. “Music is lovely because it stimulates people, superficial music doesn’t, “as Sherwood expressed for his label’s website. “If you make something that you put your heart and soul into and really try to push it so it leaps out the f***ing speakers at you, and if there’s a good feel to it, then you’ve achieved something.”
African Head Charge
My Life in a Hole in the Ground, On-U, 1981.
Songs of Praise, On-U, 1990.
In Pursuit of Shashamane Land, On-U, 1995.
Apollo Choco, On-U, 1997.
Historic Moments Vols. 1 & 2, On-U, 1994.
Starship Africa, On-U, 1994.
Pounding System, On-U, 1982.
Tune From the Missing Channel, On-U, 1985.
Ital Breakfast, On-U, 1996.
Research & Development, On-U, 1996.
Mark Stewart & The Maffia
Learning to Cope with Cowardice, On-U, 1982.
Control Data, Mute, 1996.
(On-U Sound) Creation Rebel, On-U, 1980.
(On-U Sound) Pay It All Back, Vols. 1-6, On-U, 1981-1996.
(Missing Brazilians) Warzone, EFA, 1984.
(Revolutionary Dub Warriors) Deliverance, On-U, 1994.
(Little Axe) The Wolf that House Built, On-U, 1995.
(Tackhead) Power Inc. Vols. 1 & 2, Blanc, 1995.
(2Badcard) Hustling Ability, On-U, 1995.
(Bim Sherman) Miracle, On-U, 1996.
(Tribal Drift) Priority Shift, On-U, 1996.
(On-U Sound) Adrian Sherwood Presents The Master Recordings, On-U, 1998.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Boston Globe, February 9, 1995; April 13, 1995.
Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1995; May 7, 1995.
Rolling Stone, September 22, 1994; March 9, 1995.
Adrian Sherwood/On-U Sound Website, http://www.obsolete.com/on-u/ (October 29, 2000).
Catascopic, http://www.catascopic.com (October 29, 2000).
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